A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

Reagan and Thurmond

I know a lot of you have been following Kevin Kruse‘s twitter take-down of right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza.  Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is challenging D’Souza’s claim that today’s Democratic Party is the party of racism because it had championed racism in the past.

Any undergraduate history major knows that political parties change over time.  On matters of race, the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s is not the Democratic Party of today.

Jeet Heer calls attention to the Twitter debate at The New Republic:

D’Souza has made a specialty of highlighting the undeniable racism of the 1960s Democratic Party as a way to tar the current party. His arguments ignore the way the two political parties switch positions on Civil Rights in the 1960s, with the Democrats embracing Civil Rights and Republicans, under the guidance of national leaders like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, exploiting racist backlash.

Read Heer’s entire post, including some of the tweets between Kruse and D’Souza.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to our interview with Kevin Kruse at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The interview focuses on Kruse’s use of Twitter to bring good history to the public.

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

thurmond-states-rights

Thurmond eventually joined the GOP

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is sick and tired of Trump supporters claiming that the Democrats are the party of racism and white supremacy today because they were the party of racism and white supremacy 100+ years ago.  This twitter thread is a masterful lesson in change over time.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Kruse and the way he has used twitter to teach us how the past informs the present, listen to our interview with him in Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Read the thread here.   A taste:

Since @kanyewest‘s tweets have apparently made this topic unavoidable, some thoughts on the history of the parties’ switch on civil rights.

First, it’s important to note that, yes, the Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and, in the early 20th century, the party of segregation, too.

(There are some pundits who claim this is some secret they’ve uncovered, but it’s long been front & center in any US history.)

Indeed, as @rauchway once noted, one could argue that *the* central story of twentieth-century American political history is basically the evolution of the Democratic Party from the party of Jim Crow to the party of civil rights.

At the start of the 20th century, the Democrats — dominated by white southern conservatives — were clearly the party of segregationists.

President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, instituted segregation in Washington and across the federal government. (See @EricSYellin‘s work.)

That said, both parties in this period had their share of racists in their ranks.

When the second KKK rose to power in the 1920s, it had a strong Democratic ties in some states; strong GOP ones elsewhere.

Read the rest here.

Is Anything “Unprecedented” About Donald Trump?

Trump Jackson Tomb

Trump places a wreath at site of Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Nashville

I teach my students that historians often think in terms of change and continuity.  In the age of Trump I have been hammering this lesson home more than usual.  Is Trump just another manifestation of nativism, populism, xenophobia, narcissism, etc.?  Or is Trump something completely new?

Historian and public intellectual Julian Zelizer reflects on this issue in a piece at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Read the entire piece here.

From the 1850s to the 1950s in 10 Minutes

Taylor_Branch_credit_J._Brough_Schamp_1_2

Taylor Branch

Tonight should be an interesting one for students in my Civil War America class.  We are currently studying the 1850s and the political, social, cultural, economic, and racial lead-up to the Civil War.  The class usually runs from 6:15-9:15pm, but tonight we are stopping at 7:15pm so we can walk over a lecture hall on campus to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch deliver the 2017 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture: “King’s Dream for Justice: Then and Now.”  It takes about ten minutes to walk from our classroom to the lecture hall.  In class we will be discussing race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  The Branch’s lecture will ask students to think about race in America 100 years later.

Next week we should have a good discussion about “change over time” and “continuity.”  It’s going to be fun!

This Irresponsible Historical Thinking Has to Stop!

Read Jennifer Kerns‘s recent piece on politics and Charlottesville at The Washington Examiner.  Kerns is a GOP communications strategist who has worked for the California Republican Party and Fox News.

Here is a taste:

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, an awful lot of awful things have been said about Republicans and race relations.

However, the Left’s accusations of racism couldn’t be further from the truth that has played out in the halls of Congress over the last 150 years.

It is shocking that as talk of statues and historical racism is being bandied about, no one has mentioned the Democrats’ utterly shameful treatment of African Americans throughout history.

Over the last 100 years, Republicans have stood up for African Americans while Democrats not only stood on the sidelines, but in fact served as obstructionists to civil liberties.

Here are at least 12 examples in which Democrats voted against African Americans, and Republicans voted to free them:

Democrats voted against every piece of civil rights legislation in Congress from 1866 to 1966 – a whopping 100 years. That is a dismal record for today’s Democrats who would like you to believe that history has been on their side on this issue.

It hasn’t.

Democrats voted to keep Africans Americans in slavery, opposing the 13th Amendment which officially freed the slaves. Only four Democrats voted for it.

Republicans also passed the 14th Amendment which granted slaves U.S. citizenship; Democrats voted against it.

Republicans also passed the 15th Amendment which gave slaves the right to vote. Not a single one of the 56 Democrats in Congress voted for it.

Shame on them.

Furthermore, Republicans passed all of the Civil Rights laws of the 1860s — including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 following the Civil War.

And it goes on

I thought we were done with this kind of stuff after CNN fired Jeffrey Lord.

As any of my liberal or conservative students will tell you, one of the key components of historical thinking is change over time.  In the case of Kern’s article, let’s remember that political parties change over time.  They are not frozen in time, as she suggests.  The Democratic Party of the 19th century is not the Democratic Party of the 21st century.  The Republican Party of the 19th century is not the Republican Party of the 21st century. Things changed in the 20th century, particularly as each of these parties addressed the questions of race in America.  A political realignment took place.

The facts of Kern’s piece seem generally fine, (although I have not checked them thoroughly).  If they are accurate, they might make for a nice Wikipedia entry. But when you are trying to make the past speak to the present, as Kern does here, there are a set of historical thinking skills–such as change over time–that must be considered. Kern is not writing history here.  She is using the past irresponsibly to make a political point.

I think I will use this piece in my Introduction to History course this semester at Messiah College.

Want to learn more about historical thinking?  Try this. You can read it along with my students this semester.

Or watch this for starters:

 

 

 

Old School

oldschool_large_395x600As I write this Bill O’Reilly’s recent book Old School: Life in the Sane Lane is ranked number 19 in sales at Amazon. That is pretty good.  I imagine O’Reilly’s firing from Fox might be energizing some of his so-called “base.”  It would be interesting to have some data on the overlap between fans who still stand behind O’Reilly after the sexual harassment allegations and those who voted, and continue to support, Donald Trump.

When I learned O’Reilly was in trouble I decided to learn a little bit more about Old School.  I read the free excerpt available on Amazon. In chapter 1, O’Reilly writes:

I will concede that America will never go back to the Old School curriculum that many Baby Boomers experienced.  Not gonna happen with so many lawyers running wild.

Here’s what I am talking about.

If I’d worn a bicycle helmet when I was a kid, I would have been mocked beyond belief, and the helmet would immediately have been taken off my head and placed somewhere far away.  Maybe Rhode Island.

If my mom had defended me after a kid-on-kid altercation, I could never have left the house again.

If my dad had yelled at the Little League coach, air might have left the tires of our family car.

If I’d borrowed money from another kid to buy a Three Musketeers and didn’t pay it back, no one would have played with me.

If a kid kicked someone in a fight, he was blacklisted.  Only fists, and no hitting when someone was down.

If a girl cursed, silence ensued.  For a long time.  And boys never bothered girls because of the “Brother and His Large Friends” rule

I definitely “get” the world of O’Reilly’s Long Island childhood. I can relate to some of it. It was similar to how I grew up as a working-class kid in northern New Jersey.  We can debate whether or not there was anything good or virtuous about this world, but that would require a few more posts.  Whatever the case, this world shaped people like me and O’Reilly.

At the end of chapter one of Old School O”Reilly writes: “It is not Old School to live in the past, but remembering how things were as opposed to how things are now is a required course. So let’s get started.”  This seems disingenuous.  I’ve watched some of O”Reilly’s television show and know that for all his talk about not living in the past he actually does believe that the world of his childhood was better than today’s world. He wants to reclaim it.

And perhaps there are some things to reclaim from this past.  But the former history teacher and writer of several books about “killing” historical figures fails to recognize that times change.

We know that bicycle helmets save lives.

It is a good thing for parents to step-in when bullying occurs.

Parents still yell at Little League games, but the kind of local justice and thuggery that might lead one to let the air out of the tires of a disgruntled Little League parent”s car makes for an unhealthy neighborhood.

And apparently the “girls” O’Reilly harassed at Fox didn’t have big brothers or “large friends.” Hey, maybe the “Brother and His Large Friends” rule is a good one.  If this rule was still in operation today O”Reilly would not only be out a job, but he might also have a bloodied nose and few broken bones. 🙂

O’Reilly is learning his lesson in change over time the hard way.  But I am guessing he’ll be back.  The audience for this kind of Baby Boomers nostalgia is huge.

Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.

New Interactive Map Shows the Impact of American Westward Expansion on Native Americans

These interactive maps are becoming more and more popular.  They are amazing resources for visualizing change over time.  The number of visual learners in our classrooms is growing rapidly, making these digital maps valuable teaching tools.

The latest map in this genre is based on Claudio Saint’s new book West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776.  It shows the gradual transfer of Indian land to the United States government between 1776 and 1887.  Read all about it here.